The recent Wish You Were Here live music study - has led to celebratory headlines once again as the growth in both domestic live music audiences and tourism related to live music demonstrate growth. But dig down in the data and the picture becomes more mixed. Apply that data to experience and the picture is increasingly murky.
What we can see with our own eyes is that the growth of live music as a customer driven experience has been exponential in the past decade. The amount of stadium tours, large scale live events and arena tours has multiplied as sales of recorded music have fallen, money has shifted from ownership to experiential, of that there is no doubt, but the nature of that experiential offering is changing and it feels like we are at the beginning of a shift that will either remake the large scale live event or freeze it as a spectacle of the age, doomed to decline as performers retire or disappear.
Whilst there is a 12% growth in the number of people watching live music, there is a 13% fall in the amount of money spent at venues under 1,500 capacity. This should be an alarm bell for an industry that depends on new talent. It is certainly not news, for years many in music have been bemoaning the lack of clear pathways for new artists to reach a financially viable status and I have written previously on the huge challenges that continue to face new artists and their management in sustaining a coherent promotional approach for their music in order to grow fanbase and achieve some form of security.
The preferred strategies to mitigate the removal of traditional financial support for new artists – advances replaced by sponsorship, recording costs replaced by home studios, recorded music sales replaced by gig receipts and merchandise take – are, at best, a patchy and unreliable option and at worst a kicking of the can down the road from an industry that has no answer to the significant dilemmas it will face in the coming decade.
Chief amongst those is that the live circuit is currently in the growth phase that can be compared to the boom recorded music saw with the advent of CD. The glut of reformed bands touring classic albums whether real or imagined (or debatable) and artists whose best days (or certainly most popular songs) are behind them is not a sustainable model for a healthy live sector. The positioning of decade old career bands at the top of festival headline slots is beginning to look threadbare; some would say we are way past that point. Even the camping plus three days model of many of the UK’s key festival names is under significant threat as audience age shifts and the idea of being under canvas with a cold water tap for washing fails to have the same appeal it did twenty years ago for those of us who began our festival lives in the late 80’s.
That is the nature of the market, I would anticipate more of the familiar names of our festival circuit will disappear in the coming three or four years. Already T In The Park, once a seemingly unstoppable juggernaut, has transmuted into a city festival sans camping. More will follow. The desires of the audience are handily aligned with the needs of the promoters in such a model, the costs of securing camping sites (significant in terms both of land use and security costs) are moved out of the picture. That, in theory, leaves more money for talent. The challenge for promoters is what talent they spend that money on – short term gain or long term investment?
If that leaves a new path for promoters to rejuvenate a tired and increasingly unappealing multiple day event offering, there remains a bigger issue for both promoters and the wider industry. That drop off in venues under 1,500 capacity points to a decline in the audience for artists that make up the majority of festival bills. The cycle of promotion that saw artists run through club venues to those theatres and then to mid ranging second and third stage positions on an October through September cycle is fractured and, consequently their further progress through festival and touring shows to headline status is now blocked. Kudos here to Latitude who have, in recent years, enabled Foals to make the leap but there is scant evidence elsewhere of such long-term planning amongst event organisers. Possibly Chvrches, again with a Latitude hand up, may be the only other act to my mind that achieve that movement.
The malaise could go deeper. Many of my conversations on this subject with managers and agents come around to the one strategy that currently offers hope – Europe. If you can establish an artist at even a small-scale level across the continent, live receipts from festival touring can be the difference between a viable business and failure. As an aside on this, artists and managers who are label resistant should consider the wider benefits of a label that has presence throughout the continent, personal experience tells me that being in market even with low recorded music sales can offer benefits come summer time that more than make up for shortfall on album sales projections. Yet the current black hole of Brexit which leaves us incapable of making long term strategic decisions on Europe – will there be visa costs, will tax harmonies evaporate, can withholding tax be reclaimed etc etc? – feels like a kicking away of the last chair from under us.
Given the multiple factors at play here, single solutions to the problem are not possible. It is all very well for John Whittingdale to offer positive comments to the report (whilst ignoring the negatives) but government strategies for artists in the form of tax breaks and a solution to the VAT black hole – many artists are below VAT income threshold meaning they lose 20% on a variety of spend for touring and recording – would be a start. Further aid from government in terms of cost reductions for small venues would also be very welcome. Within the industry, more investment is necessary for new artists. Management cannot continue to shoulder the burdens of start-up investment alone (as is often the case at present) whilst continuing to be offered deals that reflect a past age of advances with points structures and deductions that chip away at any returning income. If not, we face a decade of decline, marked by a circuit of old stagers on big stages sucking the money out of live music until what should be a vibrant, forward facing industry becomes a heritage product, frozen in time.